Thursday, December 19, 2013

Journey to the Center of the Opening of the Key

While I appreciate elegant simplicity, I can also sink my teeth into an intriguing web of complexity. Complexity here should not be equated with ‘complicated’. When something is complicated, it confronts us with a mass of disparate information without any evident patterns, while a complex subject’s diversity exists in a state of orderly interconnection, especially one that possesses an active behavior of probability that wouldn’t settle into a state of inertia. While I see tarot as such a system, something nearly always brings me a sense of disappointment when the cards are placed in a static spread configuration with set positional meanings. It’s a bit like looking like a dead butterfly pinned to a flat board when you could be watching it flitting about in its habitat, alive and vital. For me, the Opening of the Key is that live butterfly, one you can observe through its entire life cycle.

For those unfamiliar with the Opening of the Key, it is a leviathan of a tarot divination method developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a society of ceremonial magic that featured a membership of influential heavyweights such as Arthur Edward Waite, S.L. MacGregor Mathers and Aleister Crowley. The method itself is a massive five-stage-Saturn-V-rocket of a reading rooted in Hermetic Qabalistic principals, the entire proceeding usually taking a few hours to complete (though some may maintain it takes days). I won’t even consider displacing this article with the details, but will instead let Israel Regardie explain it himself in The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, Vol. 9 (beginning on p. 30). I simply wish to speak about my own personal experience of the method.

I found three aspects of the Opening of the Key to be particularly inspirational to me as a reader. The first is the use of a significator, or a card that represents the querent. Even before being exposed to OOTK, I had recognized the significator’s usefulness as a “GPS tracker” for pertinent information relating directly to the querent and used it regularly with consistent success. Another factor that appealed to my approach was elemental dignities, which in a nutshell are the dynamics between the classical elements that are either beneficial, neutral or antagonistic. I have since adopted this method as an alternative to reading ‘reversed’ cards, a technique I never quite got used to. So, if I found the significator nestled between the Empress and the 6 of Wands, that goal the querent has been patiently moving toward will likely be reached, although no miraculous strokes of fortune should be expected.

A third and less quantifiable facet of OOTK is that with some exceptions, there are no real fixed positional meanings, and even those exceptions are broad themes rather than specific categories. While some readers might find this challenging, what eventually struck me was the inherent freedom in this approach to arrive at meaning by inference, as the cards themselves determine the position’s significance. Here was the point in which the butterfly truly comes to life, where skills in deduction and intuition are both being called upon to pull order from the aether. Through this technique a narrative emerges without being bogged down by a checklist of compartments, every bit of information organically building off another. One way to look at it is as an advanced version of Scrabble, working with visual symbols rather than letters and generating constellations of poetic phrasing instead of mere words.

More peculiar bits of the OOTK include the counting and pairing of the cards. The counting technique seems arbitrary at first, the numeric values of the cards determined by arcane factors, but the effect this has is what I surmise to be the “Key” aspect of the reading. As the counting progresses, the process reveals itself to be like working out a combination number or inserting a key into a lock, opening some positions while leaving others. A subset of the symbolic information stream emerges, like you’ve just gained authorized access to sensitive material. As the pairing process goes, I liken it to the “Fold-In” pages of Mad Magazine, where a complex illustration is folded in on itself to reveal another image that suggests an additional perspective. This is in effect what happens in the reading: another angle appears by recombining elements of the larger picture, and often in both a metaphorical and literal sense, ties up loose ends.

The Opening of the Key consists of five distinct sections, or “operations”. I discovered that the First Operation alone is extremely adaptable. It can easily be performed on its own as a stand-alone 30-minute reading, being able to sift out an array of key points. The opening “Tetragrammaton” technique has been a godsend in addressing general readings as it covers all the bases, and is particularly useful in pinpointing pressing concerns. If their significator turns up in the first Hé pack, for example, it would indicate their focus is on a relationship, or they are being affected by the matter primarily on an emotional level. I could also truncate the operation further by zeroing in on just the two cards flanking the significator rather than fanning out the entire stack, making it an effective 10-minute reading, and with a bit of imagination (and some Qabalistic cross-checking) convert it into a timeline interpretation, each stack representing successive temporal spans.

The subsequent operations of the Opening of the Key are what their subtitles suggest: development and further development of the question. If the Second and Third Operations look familiar to some readers, they bear a distinct resemblance to a circular twelve-card astrological reading that addresses the querent’s experience in specific aspects of life as governed by the houses and signs. The Fourth Operation expands on this structure by subdividing each sign into their three decans, presenting itself as an intimidating 36-card circle, but nonetheless acts an electron microscope scrutinizing even finer grist for the mill. I have also encountered a ten-card spread based on the Qabalistic Tree of Life (which I occasionally use), each position based on the Tree’s ten sephirah, which by peculiar coincidence is the structure the Fifth Operation. Being as the OOTK was developed around the beginning of the 20th century, I can’t help but wonder if it was the source of inspiration for these spreads.

Since my exposure to this method, I’ve used it almost exclusively and have even developed a personalized variation of it which has yielded successful results. Every so often I revert to a 15-card spread (said to have also originated in the Golden Dawn, though that claim is in dispute), but the Opening of the Key still draws me back with its fascinating potential. I suspect I’ve only just started to unlock its many hidden codes.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Why I Left the Esoteric Community

Barely a year after I began investigating tarot as a divination tool, I stumbled upon the more studious aspects of the occult orders and spiritual philosophies that have been embedded into this system of cartomancy. I believed (and still do) that such an approach made for much deeper and profound readings, and perhaps had a sense of pride in following this tradition. However, the recognition of contemporary attitudes inspired by this system have gradually transformed that pride into embarrassment.

My embarrassment was catalyzed by an increasingly noticeable schism in the tarot community as a whole. On one side, there is the 'intuitive' school, basing their reading technique more on direct impressions of the imagery, some employing psychic skills to enhance their readings. On the other, we have the 'esoteric' school, which champions the more systematic and arcane approach carved out by seasoned scholars and occultists. Both sides make ample opportunities to state their cases, but unfortunately it all too often devolves into childish mud-slinging festivals. Such a poisonous rivalry had been irritating me for some time and made me very reluctant to participate in community dialog, having to maintain integrity in the crossfire of two entrenched camps.

It finally came to a head while perusing through an online forum devoted to esoteric tarot. For the most part, the discussions were engaging and stimulating, but were more often than not tainted by individuals cloaking themselves in airs of self-importance, wantonly flaunting their knowledge in an arrogant and elitist manner in transparent attempts to demonstrate how "evolved" they were, usually in a boorish and acerbic manner. It was becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate such attitudes, but when I came across one too many posts ridiculing intuitive readers, the last straw had been laid down. I promptly ejected myself from the forum and have not returned.

This is not to suggest I have abandoned the esoteric approach; I continue to refresh my education of such methods. What I have abandoned is the misguided sense of superiority that apparently comes with the package. If what I have learned in my travels through the Western mystery tradition has informed we well enough, a truly enlightened being would have no use whatsoever of such an attitude, and in fact would have the capacity to hold contrary beliefs as being equally valid. Even the most advanced of esoteric practitioners have stated that knowledge needs to be balanced with intuition, as an exclusive reliance on the analytical mind constitutes only half of the information available.

The very definition of 'esoteric' implies exclusivity: "designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone"; "requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group". Indeed, those who developed such a body of occult knowledge went to great lengths to keep that knowledge secret, fearing it could be misused in the hands of those who did not adequately comprehend the intents and purposes behind such knowledge. It amounts to higher education, employing advanced cognizant skills and referencing complex networks of information to arrive at a well-considered conclusion.

"Intuition" is defined as "the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning". If we accept this definition, the implication is that a direct perception exists that can supersede the analytical process. While some would relate this to instinct, relating to the more primitive aspects of the human mind, it could just as easily be operating at a level beyond the consciousness, tapping into a form of intelligence existing on an extra-personal ethereal level. Perhaps intuition consists of elements of both primitive and advanced perception.

What we are dealing with is in effect the uses of both hemispheres of the brain: the right concentrating on the abstract and the left focusing on the concrete. In Qabalistic terms, it is Netzach and Hod respectively, both of which occupying opposing polarities. While this polarity is vital in creating a dynamic and living system, either one by itself achieves limited results, and in fact has the potential to independently create destructive effects. I find it no coincidence that the path connecting the two is related to the Tower card, symbolizing an explosive liberation of perception; nor is it accidental that the path crossing it on the Middle Pillar is that of Temperance, which seeks to meld and synthesize those opposites as it strives towards a greater form of intelligence. We may let those energies naturally condense in the unconsciousness of Yesod, or we can actively combine them to achieve a higher equilibrium in Tipheret.

I myself would prefer the upward trajectory. There is a prevalent mentality that if you have not chosen a side, you are a fence-sitter who lacks conviction. My conviction is to surmount that mentality and embrace the whole.

Friday, December 21, 2012

An Archangelical Carol

A fusty season's greetings and welcome to the first Mercuric Aludel entry participating in Blog Hop. Those following this Round Robin of tarot-related blogs were linked here via the contribution from TABI, and if you wish to continue the journaling journey, visit Louise Underhill's Priestess Tarot entry with the links at the end of these particular tarot musings.

Loathe though I am to admit to it, I must fall back on an old chestnut roasting on an open fire of a Christmas tradition as a touchstone for this Blog Hop theme of "Christmas Present", that of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". You all know the classic story -  the quintessential embittered and cynical personage of Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by a series of spirits on Christmas Eve in an effort to turn the tides of his own soured spirits and instruct him on the true meaning of the holiday. While Dickens toted it as a ghost story, a parallel exists between its spectral characters and the four archangels prominently depicted in tarot, lending some further gravity to this and many of the other traditions honored during the winter solstice.

As a prelude to his holiday haunting, Scrooge is first approached by the ruined ghost of Jacob Marley, condemned to "wear the chains forged in life" and walk among the living in "incessant torture of remorse." It's no far stretch to find his equal in the Devil card, in which the demon in question takes the form of archangel Uriel. Uriel is not to be equated with Lucifer, the fallen angel who became the ruler of Hell, but he is described as the "watcher over thunder and terror" and according to Revelations holds the keys to the Bottomless Pit, and is thus associated with the Devil. This is an important distinction, because like Marley, Uriel delivers warnings and offers opportunities for redemption, a chance to face trials of crisis and throw off the loose fitting chains that we often fetter our own selves with. As the "Light of God", Uriel offers us light to find our way through the darkness, so do many of the "festivals of lights" that accompany the holidays psychologically buffer us against the long cold nights of winter when the Sun is at its weakest.

As foretold by Marley, Scrooge is visited first by the spirit of Christmas Past, who attempts to reconnect Scrooge with his roots, coming for Scrooge's "welfare", if not his "reclamation". A pivotal aspect of Scrooge's trip down Memory Lane is re-witnessing himself parting ways with his would-be bride Belle, who feels she has been "displaced by a golden idol". No doubt we are seeing the Lovers card reversed here, a card that deals as much with crucial decisions as it does with love and partnership. Raphael, the healer, is the archangel who presides over the Lovers and endeavors to restore wholeness by recovering the lost parts. Besides bringing health and well-being, he is the guardian of the Tree of Life (the card's setting is indeed Eden, a place of innocence), the patron of lovers and youth, and promotes growth. As we decorate our homes with trees, holly and other everlasting greenery, we create our own personal Eden in which we are reminded of a returning to innocence in an environment surrounded by symbols of enduring life where we enjoy the company of others, usually reunited after a long absence.

The spirit of Christmas Present, the apparent centerpiece of this piece, is depicted as a Dionysian version of Santa Claus carrying a cornucopia-like torch, with which he graces his surroundings with warmth and cheer. While I would have been tempted to link this jovial figure to the Lovers card, his torch and ever-flowing emotive power (and some variations have him brandishing a cup of wine) bears resemblance to Temperance, who is the protective archangel Michael. The protection that Michael provides is one of power and strength tempered by love and compassion, the right combination of which produces a selfless state of generosity and reconciliation, a condition free of "Ignorance and Want". Here, the phrase 'Christmas Present' can be taken as both being in the moment and as a gift, for the practice of gift giving is a powerful expression and enabler of this spirit of reconciliation, in the spirit of the solstice holidays being a time of charity and goodwill.

While the third spirit is the one Scrooge fears most, the spirit of Christmas Yet To Come has more to show than just the future. It provides Scrooge with a calling. For this reason, the Grim Reaper guise has been placed upon Gabriel, the messenger archangel associated with the Judgment card. While resurrection is an obvious theme, it is a dramatic metaphor for a personal awakening to a sense of purpose, depicted by the corpses rising from the narrow coffins of their former definitions of life. Such is the wake-up call Scrooge receives upon being shown his own barren headstone and the "judgment on him" seen in the aftermath of his death, pledging to change the course of the future by an "altered life". With Gabriel blowing Revelry, revelry itself becomes key. In celebrating the close of another yearly chapter and the coming of fresh one, we indeed 'look forward' to the renewal of ourselves and the world around us with a sense of optimism and hope.

At the end of Dickens' tale, Scrooge is reformed, a new man fervently vowing to honor the spirit of Christmas and to "live in the past, present and future". Marley and the three spirits have accomplished their mission, and their four archangelical counterparts make a curtain call appearance in Kerubic form in the World card. While they also surround the Wheel of Fortune, which is certainly symbolic of continuous flow of time in which Scrooge aims to exist, the World offers more seasonal symbolism. The figure of the dancer, reborn through perseverance, compassion, integration and liberation, is set within a great wreath - another ubiquitous tradition of the holiday season. Their similarity to the oroburos, the serpent holding its tail in its mouth, is hardly coincidental, as wreaths are symbols of eternal life and continuous cycle. Every year the world is reborn, and invites us all to be reborn with it, an occasion marked by observances that stretch across time and culture.

A happy solstice, however you choose to celebrate. (No, I will not quote Tiny Tim.)

Go forward to the Blog of Christmas Future: Priestess Tarot
Skip back to the Blog of Christmas Past: TABI

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Unemployment Assurance

Having been recently laid off from a job that saw 20 years of my service, naturally I was kicked into a sea of introspection as well as to the curb, once the initial shock had worn off. Of course I did readings as to what directions to go from here (which will remain private), but my main tarot inquiry began a reflection on the cards that adequately symbolized the situation and the conditions that led to it. This brought me to a meditation on the Eights of the deck, both minor and major.

My former work environment had been becoming increasingly difficult  - little remaining prospects for raises or promotions with respect and recognition becoming even more scarce. The daily negative influences kept me in a tight knot of continual malcontent and frustration. The Eight of Swords is a classic symbol of this negative feedback loop, one that keeps the mind inhibited and caged, eventually convincing itself that this is the reality it must accept, yet this remains a self-imposed prison that is easily escapable. I had already been contemplating removing myself from that sorry situation, and act illustrated by the Eight of Cups. While the despair and depression are clear, so is the message: the jalopy has finally broken down for good and it's time to leave it behind. While the departure was not willful or at a time of my choosing, it kick-started a long delayed change of direction that admonishes to seek greener pastures.

The other side of the equation is neatly filled in by the remaining Eights. The Eight of Wands is the necessary enthusiasm and rapidness of action that must be called upon to conceptualize what can be brought in to fill the gap. While practical matters are up in the air, so are the creative possibilities beyond the obvious. Along with the new ideas must certainly come the footwork to make them real, expressed by the labor depicted in the Eight of Pentacles. This is not strictly the menial tasks that make up the journey of a thousand steps, but also constructing the map of that journey, taking stock of your own skills and resources and cultivating necessary patience.

Depending on what deck you happen to be looking at, a Major Arcana eight could either be Strength or Justice. The numerical switching is a subject for another blog, but both cards are appropriate archetypes of encouragement and resolve in the face of unemployment. One of the original titles for Strength was, more appropriately, "Fortitude" - strength maintained over time in response to an ongoing challenge. It finds a synonym in "courage", denoting a condition of conviction that tames the fear that would overwhelm one's common sense and better judgement. That better judgement is put into action with Justice, which engages the mind as a disciplined and objective process of making decisions, distanced from emotion. Rather than 'just deserts' or 'what's fair', Justice is about analysis, adjustment and doing what is necessary.

Strength has taken a greater importance in this rumination in light of earlier thoughts about this sudden life change. Qabalistically speaking, Strength is a path that connects the opposing spheres of Chesed and Gevurah, receptively "Mercy" and "Severity". In an allegory of metabolism, Chesed is the anabolic process of storing and building up ingested energy while Gevurah describes the catabolic breaking down and burning of that energy. Between the two, a living and self-regulating system is produced, and in the traditional image of the woman taming the lion, it reflects a human dynamic of higher and nobler faculties harnessing and controlling the base instincts. In the instance of suddenly loosing one's job (or in any challenging situation), it becomes a call to both order and action.

It was little coincidence that I ended grouping the small Eights in respective pairs, either totaling to 16. Strength itself is echoed on a lower level by Key 16, the Tower, which also forms an equalizing path between the polarities of Mercy and Severity and usually indicates an abrupt upheaval in one's experience. Never a popular card, it has an often overlooked aspect of this is the opportunity that comes with the shattering of a outmoded form of security. Here the equalization comes more from external influences beyond our control, forcing us to reckon with patterns of living that do more to restrict us than help us evolve. This is the condemned property being razed to clear the way for something more appropriate and profitable to take its place.

Then there comes the obvious: I am writing this as an aspiring professional Tarot consultant. I wonder what it all could possibly mean...

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Supernal Evensong

As I sat down to engage in a Qabalistic pathworking tarot spread (courtesy of Joy Vernon), designed to affect an awareness of the sephiroth Chokmah and its conjoined relationship to Binah on the Tree of Life, I desired an ambient soundtrack to keep my mind open and engaged. Not halfway through the spread, I indeed had a revelation about the subject I was exploring. Not from the cards, but from the music.

The music in question was that of two of my favorite musicians, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, in a short-lived but extremely influential collaboration. Much of their work centered around an analog tape delay system, in which a recorded sound would be continuously fed back into the recording device at regular intervals. The effect is like an echo, but here the echo occurs several seconds apart and is able to sustain itself for greater lengths of time. The result is a perpetual building and decaying of layers of improvised notes and textures, continuously unfolding and evolving over time. Fripp, the virtuoso guitarist, provides most if not all of the active performance, while Eno plays the role of producer, manipulating the mechanism that sustains and structures the performance.

In effect, Fripp is acting as the Chokmah to Eno's Binah. Chokmah is described as "the Will to Force", in which the aim is to project an intention outwardly; Binah is the "Will to Form", which seeks to contain and mold the energy it receives. Within the music, there is Fripp's intentional expression captured, modified and reflected back by Eno's apparatus, which in turn inspires Fripp to actively respond in kind. The process is a dialog between two very different modes of operation; one active and dynamic, the other passive and absorbing. This reciprocal dualism has its parallel in the Taoist principals of the yang and yin, which by themselves don't accomplish much of value but create a vibrant living quality when acting in consort.

If I had to pick a tarot card to represent the two musicians, Eno would be the Magician and Fripp would be the Hierophant. In terms of character, Fripp has usually been seen as the grand philosopher, taking an almost spiritual attitude toward the act of making music (even to the point of spouting aphorisms and axioms) while remaining devoted to disciplined technique. One the flip side, Eno's intellect stems from a more amorphous source, often employing calculated uses of chance elements and using his skills to manipulate elements provided by others. It's absolutely no surprise that the corresponding paths on the Tree of Life connect respectively with Chokmah and Binah. True to fashion, with Binah being the "Supernal Mother", it's amusing to note that Eno began his musical career as a glam rocker; more esoterically, the name of Fripp's seminal band, King Crimson, is allegedly a synonym for Beelzebub, an anglicized corruption of "B’il Sabab", Arabic for "the man with aim". (It should be noted, though, that Beelzebub happens to be the archdevil associated with Chokmah).

Together, their interaction produces a sense of timeless power, both hypnotic and awe-inspiring. As Chokmah and Binah are both dualistic expressions of Kether, the "first swirlings" in which the unified source resides, the music of Fripp and Eno provides a spiraling sonic expression of what Kether is, and in fact provides a clue as to the abstract mechanics of the Supernal Triad as it is enacted through the pair. We get a sense of time as an infinitude of possibility, and yet experience it in real time as a generated artifact (this could be viewed as a natural trickle-down into Chesed, the first perceivable idea of form). The traditional goal of trance music is to bring the listener into a state of divine rapture, in direct contact with the source of life, with Kether. Here, it just happens to take the form of modernist conceptualism. More power to us.

Listen to Fripp & Eno's "The Heavenly Music Corporation"

Monday, September 24, 2012

Prediction, Free Will and Muad'dib

During a recent public reading event, I was rebuked by a hoodied something-teen with the proclamation, "I think it would really boring to know my future." While I can't completely share his sentiment, I can agree with him on principal. In fact, when I attempted to look into the future, I saw the face of Muad'dib staring back at me.

Anyone familiar with Frank Herbert's "Dune" series knows the name. The central character, Paul Atreides, through the agency of the hallucinogenic spice Melange, becomes Muad'dib, the Kwisatz Haderach ("Shortening of the Way"), who can see past, present and future simultaneously. Ultimately, he comes to understand that to know the future is to become trapped by it, funneled into an ever-narrowing door of possibility. While his father Leto had admonished "Knowing that a trap exists is the first step in avoiding it," Muad'dib's son Leto II declares, "I assure you that the ability to view our futures can become a bore." The young naysayer who refused the reading had a bit of mythological backup.

Yet, on the other side of the equation (and there is always another side), the Uncertainty Principal in quantum physics states that the very act of observation affects a change in the observed. When we have a conscious awareness of what lies ahead, alternatives are immediately created. You see the precipice approaching, and in an effort to avoid plummeting over the edge you realize the benefits of turning left or right or even back. The future suddenly branches off into several possibilities, each with their own separate destinations. Once this happens, the future is nearly impossible to predict - to use the words of another omnipotent science fiction character, "Always in motion, the future is."

Faced with these questions about questions and free will versus determinism, I recall a moment where, in a fit of despair, I came to the realization that I was where I was as a result of the choices I had made up to that point. My present is the result of what actions I took in the past, and as such, my future is determined by the actions I undertake in the present. As such, a reading about one's future is not so much about foretelling as it is about projecting which way your present course could take you, and what options you have for altering the vector. Futures are created, not predicted.

The rejoinder I gave to the adolescent striving to forge his own reality was "This isn't about knowing your future, it's about empowering you in the present." And the caveat I would deliver to those desiring that prescience would once again come from the timeless pages of "Dune": "The eye that looks ahead to the safe course is closed forever."